The plan was to get up, pack, and be ready to leave the next morning from Tulsa, Oklahoma to drive to Ft. Smith, Arkansas. There would be a stop on the way in Poteau, Oklahoma to pick up a roommate's stuff. From Ft. Smith, we would drive to Indianapolis to spend the night before driving in to New York City the next day. That would put us in the city on September 14th.
I would be driving the moving truck and my girlfriend would be with me in the passengers seat. Our roommate was finalizing all the details of our new townhouse in Forest Hills. The last thing I remember about going to bed on the 10th was that our lease fell through, and we had no actual place to move to, but that our roommate would be checking out places all day the next day.
My mother woke me up, physically stirring me. I was asleep in one of the twin beds in my old bedroom in the house I grew up in. I had recently graduated college months before and came home after a summerstock contract in Oklahoma City. There was a TV in my room and she turned it on.
Through my bleary eyes, I saw images that I couldn't process. A crystal blue sky in Manhattan. A pillar of smoke coming from the side of one of the towers. The plane hitting the second tower. I remember thinking, I can't believe this, I hope they show it again so I can truly understand this. I have never regretted a thought more. They did show it again. And again. And again. The towers fell. I watched people panic on the streets, running for their lives. Covered in ash.
This is where I would be living in days. I remember the silence between my mother and I all day. We ran the errands we were supposed to be doing. Trivial, last minute things like get a CD case for the trip, packing bags, driving around Tulsa. I remember the long lines at the gas stations. I remember the Barnes and Noble was practically empty.
My initial reaction was not to go. Out of fear.
My girlfriend's reaction was to go. Also, probably, out of fear.
The facts were these:
We had no apartment to move to.
New York City was just the victim of the worst terror attack of our life.
I had to pick the rental truck up in less than 24 hours.
I don't remember much more about that day. I went through it in a haze. I reached out to friends there, texts and instant messages. Their reactions were all similar-don't come, stay home, it's unreal here.
I remember struggling with the 'should i stay or should i go' of it all. I don't know at what point I made my decision, but I decided to continue with my original plan to move there. I had worked for the past few years to make this possible. I was 22 with a Bachelor of Music degree, a handful of professional theatre credits, and a person to lean on in the transition.
I've always said that day made us all hold on to what we had, whatever it was, a little bit harder. I shook off all the flaws and imperfections of my situation and pressed on.
The morning of the 12th was somber between my mother and I. She was very quiet, and to this day I still don't know how she didn't just pull me out of the drivers seat and make me stay in my room. The drive to Poteau was quiet. I met my roommates parents and picked up some of his stuff to put in the back of the 26 foot moving truck. On to Fort Smith.
Around sun down, I pulled up in the big truck and we loaded up her stuff. Spent the night with her family. Probably had a nice meal. Probably had nice conversation. I honestly don't remember. I just remember moments from the trip.
We had no CD player. No GPS. No tape player even. Just the radio. And stations were full of news, not music. So for two days, we listened to interviews. Statements. National church services. Opinions. Anger. Tears.
Our roommate had managed to set up some appointments for when we got there, to look at apartments. We made it as far as Parsippany, New Jersey, before calling it a day on September 14. The next morning, we took a bus into the city and met up with our roommate and went out to Astoria and got the first place we went to. A small 2 bedroom right off the train. We just said yes. I can only imagine we looked terrified. They could've asked for $5K a month and we would have said yes. We just wanted a place.
We were able to leave the truck in Jersey and spent the night in a friends place in the east village. I remember how bare the sidewalks were. I remember eating pizza in a storefront, takeaway joint and not saying much. I remember sleeping with the window open and not hearing much overnight.
I remember driving the truck over the George Washington Bridge. The pillar of smoke on our right, the American flag and Manhattan in front of us. The strange juxtaposition of tragedy and realizing a life goal.
We would eventually move in. We would eventually take the truck back. We would eventually settle in. Life eventually moved on. We eventually broke up. We eventually moved out. By September 11, 2002, I would be in a different relationship, with a different group of people, about to embark on a national tour.
But for a fleeting period of time, New York City was the most precious, attentive, and caring city in the world. We looked each other in the eyes. We talked to strangers, offering direction and asking how they were affected. We listened to stories. We cried. We hugged. We went to Broadway shows. We laughed. We ate ice cream. We held on tight to whatever it was that was ours.
I am no longer a resident of New York, but I'm forever changed by my time there. And I've never regretted moving there days after 9.11. I am grateful that I was able to witness the love and care and heartbreak and triumph and tragedy. New York would eventually rebuild. We would eventually break up. I would eventually move out.
But, just like the ghost lights that shone into the sky days after, piercing the night sky, New York still is there as a reminder to all. It towers, it triumphs, it endures.